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Philly needs a better prison-to-school pipeline

Rusty prison bars. May 31, 2018 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongMethod
More than 100,000 youth in the U.S. return each year to their home communities and try to pick up the pieces of their disrupted academic lives after being incarcerated.

What exactly happens to these adolescents as they retrace their steps back to education?

Former Mayor Michael Nutter, looking for solutions, commissioned PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to examine the academic outcomes of youth in Philly public schools who were involved with the child welfare or juvenile justice system.

The 2013 report showed that 17 percent of School District of Philadelphia high school students have been involved with either the child welfare or juvenile justice system and that these students have poorer education outcomes than students who are not in the system.

“I think it is an absolutely tragic scenario,” said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center (ELC), a local nonprofit that advocates for educational equity on behalf of the state’s most vulnerable children, including those incarcerated. “Youth involved with the juvenile justice system have the lowest graduation rate in the city and only 30 percent are reading and doing math at a proficient level.”

"We don’t provide much room for young people, and especially young people of color, to make mistakes."
Lauren Fine, Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project

In addition, African American adolescents who have repeated contacts with the juvenile justice system fare even worse: They have more mental health issues, more delinquent behavior, more drug and alcohol use and more risky sex with its concomitant problems.

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“I think that we don’t provide much room for young people, and especially young people of color, to make mistakes,” said Lauren Fine, cofounder and co-director of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.

School reentry grew as a problem when the School District of Philadelphia instituted a zero-tolerance policy for low-level crimes — that is, one strike and you’re locked up — in 2002 before eliminating the practice in 2014 and instead implementing the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program: According to, more than 1,000 arrests were averted between 2014 and 2016, thanks to the new policy.

“Zero-tolerance policies don’t work. They strip school administrators of discretion, and often do more harm than good,” said Kate Burdick, a staff attorney at Juvenile Law Center and cofounder of the Legal Center for Youth Justice and Education. “A report from the Vera Institute of Justice concluded that the real result of these policies is not safer schools, but ‘significant adverse effects,’ such as ‘severely disrupt[ing] a student’s academic progress in ways that have lasting negative consequences.'”

Fine cautioned that policymakers shouldn’t create a system that derails vulnerable youth and stunts their ability to achieve successful adult outcomes.

“After they make a mistake, we have to do better,” she said.

Best practices say that recovery requires coordinated, outcome-oriented transition that promotes successful movement between the juvenile facility and the community.

"Being in juvenile facility throws them off track and how can they be expected to recover?"
Maura McInerney, Education Law Center

“To smooth the reentry process, I recommend that every student have a point of contact who works with them to create a comprehensive graduation plan — not just at the point of reentry, but beyond,” Burdick said.

The Philly school district’s solution is the Student Transition Center, a one-stop shop that has a multidisciplinary staff including a juvenile probation officer and reps from the Department of Human Services and Community Behavior Health along with school district personnel.

The goal is to get youths an individualized transition plan and a new school assignment within 72 hours of them contacting the transition center.

McInerney argued that the academic problems start with a poor educational experience during incarceration, and that transition educational records snafus are problematic as well as an “automatic push” to alternative schools.

Students who post “a clear threat to the safety and welfare of other students or the school staff” or create “an unsafe school environment” are referred to Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth programs. These schools, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, are designed to provide behavioral support along with the academics.

“Youth come back to school and they’ve earned credits, but the credit is not part of the school district’s core curriculum, so it only counts as electives,” McInerney said. “Being in juvenile facility throws them off track and how can they be expected to recover?”

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